A meeting with No. 1 seed Wisconsin was the final step in MSU’s quest to defend its tournament crown, and for about 32 minutes the Spartans were well on their way to another title.
Holding their own
Though MSU played some of their best basketball of the season on the road to the championship, they fell short in overtime against Wisconsin on Sunday
Following a steal and fast break reminiscent of last year’s Big Ten tournament championship, senior forward/guard Branden Dawson found himself all alone and slammed home a dunk to put MSU up 11 with just under eight minutes left in regulation.
The Badgers responded in a hurry, scoring 11 straight points to regain a 60-59 lead and send the overwhelmingly predominant Wisconsin crowd into a frenzy.
The final stretch was wild and after 40 minutes, a Big Ten tournament champion still wasn’t decided. Wisconsin pounced on the Spartans in overtime, however, outscoring them 11-0 and cruising to an 80-69 win.
Costly mistakes in crunch time
When Wisconsin hit MSU with its 11 point run in regulation, the Spartans responded with poise. Freshman guard Lourawls Nairn nailed a three to give his team a 62-60 lead with 3:45 left.
Wisconsin sophomore forward Nigel Hayes responded with two made free throws and once again, MSU answered. Following a missed layup by Wisconsin senior forward Frank Kaminsky, a risky pass ahead from Dawson ended up in senior guard Josh Gasser's hands. Kaminsky finished the turnover with a two-point score to make the Spartans pay and tie the game at 64 with under three minutes left.
With 22 seconds left and a two point lead thanks to a floater by senior guard Travis Trice, junior guard Denzel Valentine ended up with the ball after Gasser saved it from going out of bounds. It looked like MSU would have a chance to ice the game at the line.
Not so fast. Valentine’s outlet pass was picked off by Wisconsin junior forward Sam Dekker. After the game, Valentine said he thought his intended target, Dawson, was wide open and admitted that he should have secured the ball instead.
Koenig ended up with the ball and he ultimately knocked down two free throws to tie the game and send things into overtime.
“We had them beat and made a bad play and they won,” Valentine said.
"We just gotta be smarter down the stretch when we have the ball and we have the win. Just gotta make plays to win.”
The road to the championship
In Friday night’s quarterfinal game against Ohio State, MSU played some of its best basketball of the year at times. The Spartans also looked vulnerable at others, giving up multiple double-digit leads. When all was said and done, MSU hung on for a 76-67 victory.
The win earned MSU a third date with Maryland, a team that the Spartans had taken to overtime at Breslin Center and had been dominated by in College Park. After trailing by as many as 16 points, MSU charged back into the game before once again hanging on for a 62-58 victory.
“But I thought the way our guys responded, showed some character, showed some grit,” Izzo said following the win. “Hopefully it’ll help us down the road.”
Dawson defending his crown
Senior forward Branden Dawson turned in yet another impressive Big Ten tournament run. Even in defeat, Dawson shined. He battled with Wisconsin’s Naismith hopeful Kaminsky, pestering him and holding his ground against the towering 7-footer. He wasn’t matched up with Kaminsky for the entire game, but when he was, his presence was felt.
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“He jumped over people, he made shots, free throws, he got rebounds,” Izzo said. “We put him on Kaminsky and he didn`t guard him the whole game, but he did one hell of a job on him.”
Dawson posted 16 points and seven rebounds to Kaminsky’s 19 points and five rebounds. Against Ohio State, Dawson finished with 14 points and seven rebounds. In the semi-final win over Maryland, he had 17 points and eight rebounds.
Against the Terrapins, Izzo was not pleased with Dawson at halftime. He said he challenged his senior to pick up his game, and emphatically, Dawson answered the call.
“It really started at halftime,” senior guard Travis Trice said. “Coach came in and said either you’re going to get the job done or I’m not going to play you, and B.J. responded like great players do at that point.”
He was the Most Outstanding Player a year ago, and if MSU had won Sunday, he would have been a strong candidate to take the award again. Dawson was voted to the All-Tournament Team along with fellow senior Trice.
After coming so close to pulling the upset and capping an incredible tournament run, the disappointment was felt in the locker room afterwards. But it was that aspect of the weekend that might help MSU the most going forward.
“You forget about Wisconsin but you remember the feeling,” Trice said. “You don’t want to have this feeling again. You gotta forget about this game. It’s time to move on.”
Almost winning games won’t cut it the rest of the way. The Spartans will need to play like the team from the first 32 minutes of the game if they want to keep their season going.
“To win a game, you do a lot of things right,” Izzo said. “To win a championship, you do 90 percent of the things right.”
In winning the two prior games and picking up a signature win against Maryland, MSU has plenty of positives to take away from the weekend. Like MSU teams have in the past, this year’s version proved it too can win in a tournament setting on short rest.
“Even through our ups and downs this year, Michigan State’s known for pulling it together and finding a way to get here and finding a way to be great come March,” Trice said. “Our thing now is we just need to bounce back heading into the tournament.”